I went to Lancaster County, PA, a few weeks ago. I almost didn't. My then almost non-existent knowledge of the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage had me believing that the Amish weren't Dutch. As I found out, they are. They just have chosen not to live the way all the others I have come to know have. So there I was, driving to Lancaster, being naively amused by the signs on the road: "Intercourse 5", "Lancaster 2", "Bird-in-Hand 3".
Almost immediately after our arrival in Intercourse, PA, and after a ritual visit to the Tourist Information Center to find out where to go, my amusement stopped. There I was, in the middle of Route 30, in traffic, on a cold March afternoon. The map I had gotten at the Information Center had dozens of "points of interest" marked along that crowded road, but none of that was making any sense to me.
By then, I had overcome that initial curiosity, when at the sign of the first horse drawn buggy I leaned forward in my seat and went "Oh, wow! How neat!" Most people never seem to get past that, not if those places by the side of the road were any sign. Not five minutes had gone by when I looked at my companion, who seemed to be just as annoyed, and without saying much, took the next left into the back roads, where my map said there was nothing of interest. And there they were, the Amish, walking quietly, peacefully, by the side of the road; in their barns; riding along in their buggies. And then annoyance turned into anger, but I wasn't quite sure why.
It could be argued that I was contributing to what was making me angry, and there is probably not much that I could say to defend myself from that point of view, except to say that I was not just "looking" at them in that fishbowl sense that I mentioned elsewhere in this issue; I got over that, as I said, with the first few "real Amish" (what else would they be?!) I saw. I was by then finding out what they are about, so I could write about all of the Pennsylvania Dutch as I knew I should. We did take some pictures for "skew", and, I must say, I didn't feel good about it. We tried as best as we could to be discrete and not to point cameras right at them, though that was sometimes hard. In the back of my mind, I kept telling myself that, well, there are many books around with plenty of pictures. Cheap reasoning, I know. I haven't quite yet come to grips with all of that.
I quickly realized where the anger was coming from. Part of me wanted to see the pristine setting as it was when it was just them there. That happens to me almost everywhere I go that has deeply rooted traditions like those; on Margarita Island, I wanted to just see the fishermen, not the crowds of tourists tanning themselves at the beach; in Maine, I wanted to see lobster traps, not pleasure boats; and so on. But that was minor. I had done some preliminary reading, and I knew these people to be of extreme religious faith, believing more than almost anything else in a life of simplicity and of labor, where vanity is shunned, and hard work a way of life. What I saw all around me before I took that left turn made me sick. These people are living their lives as they think they should; they are not there to amuse the tourists. This was not Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts, where if you ask the "residents" what a car is they will look at you funny, decide that you must mean a cart, and point to the thing in the barn, then, at closing time, they get changed into their jeans and t-shirts, drop their old English ways, and drive their cars away. This is real life, with real people, who dress in their dark-colored, plain clothes every day, all day long; people who do know what a car is (they can ride in them, as long as someone else drives) and choose not to use it; people who use Tupperware containers, like you and me, but choose not to have electricity or telephones in their homes.
The Amish uphold their beliefs in the midst of development and "progress". The arrival of so many tourist attractions and crowds of people wishing to move to Lancaster County to get away from overcrowded cities are pushing the Amish out of the place where they have lived for hundreds of years. One of the most fertile lands in the nation, perhaps the world, is slowly being taken over by apartment complexes and proposed highways to handle the traffic generated by those new residents and the tourists. There is a blatant disregard for the Amish way of life in the heart of Amish country. Putting a highway between two farms means the Amish, aside from having a highway in their backyard, will become separated from those friends and family members on the other side. They walk or ride their buggies almost everywhere; how can they do that when there is a highway in the middle?
As I took in the beauty of that land, and watched these people go on with their lives, ignoring the line of traffic behind them, and trying their best to moderate the effects of modern life in theirs, one of the things that struck me the most was the number of commercial places along Route 30 that claimed to be Amish something or the other. They may have wares bought from the Amish and resold to the rest of us, or serve food similar to that made by the Amish, but the establishments themselves are not Amish. These are a people who would not advertise their faith, or call attention to themselves, as that is against their religion. Some of them have been forced to leave a farming life because there just isn't any land left for the newer generations to farm, and gone into some sort of commerce, but they are not the ones with the big flashy signs out front. They sell their crafts from roadside stands, usually by their family's barn, or work in construction crews that each day get picked up by the English and brought elsewhere. They train and sell horses or manufacture furniture.
I have, since that visit, read extensively about the Amish and their neighbors, the Mennonites. I have heard the stories about how the New Amish (those living by less strict rules) have cellular phones to conduct business, and how most of them have had to install generators in their barns to produce milk that will meet the standards imposed by modern technology. I even heard a story about a group of youth who would ride their buggies to an English friend's barn, change into less strict clothing, and go out for the night. I read about how they are losing more of their people to the outside world than they ever have before (some of the younger generation are choosing not to be baptised in the faith, usually joining a Mennonite church and staying near their families nonetheless). I have also heard of the imperfections of their world; there is child abuse and crime and rape, but it does not even come close to what the rest of us go through every day, and when it happens, the perpetrators are shunned, excomunicated from the church, and forbidden to have contact with even their immediate family.
Through all I've seen and learned about the Amish, the most disturbing fact is this - they are not going to resist the advances of the rest of us. They do not vote, nor do they participate in local government. It is against their rules. They do not offer resistance, but just adapt. They will not be impolite, and rarely speak up against the issues affecting them. It is their way.
There are those who try to appeal to the authorities making the decisions that affect the Amish by saying Lancaster County is a national treasure, that the land should be preserved for farming because of its fertility. I hope they succeed. The way I see it, we should leave them alone because they are trying to live their lives the way they see fit. That is not to say don't go visit them, but it does mean go there, interact with them, don't just look at them; respect their ways and their space. Learn from their respect of the land and of each other. Then, leave them be. If we don't, they will leave, as they did before, and this time around there isn't a brand new continent waiting for them; there are only farmlands in other states where they will settle, and then be followed by the crowds all over again.
- Anabella Wewer